‘It’s not the first musical about cancer,’ laughs Bryony Kimmings, ‘but I think it might be the first good musical about cancer.’
One of London theatre’s most exhilaratingly unpredictable talents, Kimmings made her name with a draining series of eccentric, angry, funny, heavily autobiographical solo and duo stage shows. A product of London’s febrile live art and alt cabaret scenes, she had four big hits, the last and most acclaimed being ‘Fake It ’Til You Make It’, a collaboration with her then-partner Tim Grayburn about their relationship and his depression. Previously she’d done a song cycle about getting an STD (‘Sex Idiot’), written a show about being drunk, while drunk (‘7 Day Drunk’), and invented a pop star alter ego to provide her niece with a positive role model (‘Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model’). But then she was expecting a baby with Grayburn and wanted to take a step back from the spotlight. And so the most unlikely musical of the year was born: ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’.
‘I had never known anyone with cancer and I hadn’t experienced it in any way,’ she admits, breezily, ‘but I was sort of looking to write about things I’d not experienced.’ She was invited by legendary theatre company Complicite to pitch some ideas, but their producer Judith Dimant didn’t go for them. However, she did confide that she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. Kimmings had an idea: ‘I said, “I can make something good about cancer!” ’
Amanda Hadingue and the company in A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer. © Mark Douet
‘It hopefully feels like a gift back for sharing their shit with me’
Having always wanted to write a musical (all her other shows include songs), Kimmings threw herself into the research by hanging out with 15 cancer patients (including Dimant) for two years. The resultant show uses many of their actual words and thoughts: ‘I try not to be too much of a cunt about stealing their ideas. If it goes in the show, it hopefully feels like a gift back for sharing their shit with me.’
What does a musical about cancer look like? The original idea was simple enough: a heroine, Emma, enters a hospital oncology department to a blaze of song and dance for a high-energy, irony-free first half. ‘You certainly get a massive dollop of musical,’ enthuses Kimmings. ‘All the tits and teeth, all the glitter, all the amazing songs. It’s got banging tunes!’ But as Emma makes a journey through the stages of grief – denial, anger, depression, bargaining, sorrow, acceptance – it becomes less and less jolly, with the songs dropping away for a challenging second half.
And that was going to be that, until Kimmings and Grayburn’s little boy, Frank, got sick at four months old with a rare form of baby epilepsy. (‘It’s a neurological fucking hellhole.’) He is better, for now, but instinctually and at the behest of Complicite, Kimmings wrote her own story in: she doesn’t perform but is there as a voiceover.
Golda Rosheuvel and the Company of A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer. © Mark Douet
‘It's presumptuous to think anyone gives a fuck about the writer’
‘I feel like a bit of a cunt about it,’ she laughs. ‘I know Miranda July shoves herself into the middle of things, but it’s quite fucking presumptuous to think anyone gives a fuck about the writer of the show. At the top of it I say “Hello, I’m Bryony Kimmings” – who? But I think I’ve realised I want it to be from my perspective, my opinions, because I think that’s what people like about my work. But it might also be extremely narcissistic.’
It might be, but Kimmings’s life and ideas are just so fantastically interesting, and it’s wonderful that Complicite and the National Theatre have given her a push into the big league. Whatever the hell ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ is actually like, it’s not going to be like any musical you’ve ever seen.